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In the meantime, today’s post: a closer look at “early” stereo, courtesy of Roy DuNann and the West Coast Contemporary label. One for the engineers and stereophiles. And jazz-lovers. No Prestige yellow/black labels in sight.
Selection 1: Mambo Las Vegas
Selection 2: Latin For Lovers
Conte Candoli (trumpet) Frank Rosolino (trombone) Bob Cooper (tenor saxophone) Sonny Clark (piano) Howard Rumsey (bass) Stan Levey (drums) recorded Los Angeles, CA, October 2, 9 & 16, 1956, engineer Roy duNann.
The story of Contemporary Records’ engineer Roy duNann, the West Coast’s answer to Rudy van Gelder, is affectionately documented in this article by music and hi-ifi writer Thomas Conrad “The Search for Roy duNann” (a few essential extracts from Stereophile magazine, April 2002, below)
Lester (Koenig) had a German friend who brought a Telefunken condenser microphone with him from Germany…a Neumann U-47. The recording studios at the time were using broadcast microphones—RCAs, Western Electrics—ribbon-type dynamic mikes. This Telefunken really sounded different. Lester liked it so much he bought a few condenser mikes out of Germany and Austria, including a couple of Austrian AKGs C-12s, that were really expensive”
Lester’s expensive condenser mikes had high output because of the tube preamps built into their heads….”So,” Roy continues, “I thought why don’t we just take the signal out of the microphones and run it through variable attenuators, and we wouldn’t need any amplifiers? So that was the original console. Nothing to it. I probably had eight attenuators. That was before they had sliders, even. Couldn’t find any decent sliders. Didn’t even want one. We did all our mixing by turning knobs. We went from the attenuators right into the tape machine—no other equipment.”
The “Recording Studio”
In a tiny shipping room, whose acoustics are a miraculous accident, often in the middle of the night after the musicians have finished their regular gigs, Roy DuNann goes to work. The drums are in one corner. There are no baffles, but a piece of acoustical material is draped on wires about 4′ over the drummer’s head. The musicians are as far apart as they can get, which is not far, and those superb microphones are up close on each instrument in order to minimize leakage.
Recording, cutting and monitoring stereo in stereo
Koenig bought a very early Ampex two-track recorder. Roy remembers, “We put up two Altec coaxial speakers in the control room, and we started hearing things come out of two different speakers.” Koenig wanted to begin cutting his own stereo masters for stereo LPs, and bought one of the very first Westrex stereo cutting heads.
Thomas Conrad concludes:
“Contemporary began putting out some of the first stereo LPs on the West Coast. It is only with the perspective of history that we now recognize them as some of the best-sounding LPs ever made”.
LJC says: All the more remarkable achievement for 1956, with almost no resources, discovering that simplicity in the signal path delivered results of a quality closest to the original source. And thinking of stereo as soundstage rather than a tool by which to improve mono, put him by my reckoning perhaps five years ahead of van Gelder. And I’m a big fan of RVG.
Contemporary Stereo has a natural organic feel that defies its primitive production, much like the feisty sound recorded in van Gelder’s Hackensack living room studio. Neither men at the time had anything remotely like modern studio resources, or home listening systems equivalent to today’s stereophile listener. As Thomas Conrad rightly observes, as a professional writer for hi-fi magazines, in many fields, technology is the march of progress. But not always.
“An evening with Roy duNann” (which retraces much of the ground covered in the Stereophile article) was recorded in 2007 with Conrad and duNann in conversation before an audience of recording engineers. It adds some interesting insights, especially in the final Q&A. Asked (at 1:33:50) “Do you think the recording engineers of today are better or worse than the engineers of yester-year” (laughter from engineers) duNann smiles .” I don’t know…too many knobs on the consoles, everybody asks me, what do they do with all those knobs? I don’t know…”
Music For Lighthousekeeping was Rumsey’s last recording for Contemporary and includes several satisfying excursions into Latin-influenced fare. There were many liasons between jazz and Latin styles. Perhaps Samba – with its swaying Girl from Ipanema (Stan Getz) – has worn least well, – the only acceptable version of that tune being its’ deconstruction by Archie Shepp. But with it’s Cuban metronomic percussive roots, mambo has retained a more modern-retro ambiance.
In passing, mambo, salsa, rumba, tango, cha-cha-cha, that’s what I call Dance Music, as opposed to repetitive beats for jumping up and down to. But I digress…
This is “West Coast” jazz in geography only, as the musicians hail from all points of the American compass, and their styles echo several east coast counterparts. . One of the joys of the Rumsey All-Stars band is Bob Cooper, the West Coast answer to Hank Mobley. They share the same wayward slightly-nasal tone, fleet runs with the occasional triplet slipped into a regular metre, squawks crowning bombastic figures, plaintive vibrato, bursting with ideas, the “Coop” solo spots are a rare treat.
Frank Rosolino’s trombone offers a bluesy helping of Curtis Fuller, while Conte Candoli’s bright peppy trumpet sways between Dorham, Morgan but ultimately Hubbard-lite, which is good!. Stan Levey is Art Blakey perhaps without the thunder, but great drive, as he knocks seven bells out of his ride cymbals, giving the tweeters a good work out, speakers left dripping with audio sweat. The presence of the young Sony Clark on this Lighthouse session is another rare bonus, his highly rhythmic comping nailing down those latin tempos, adding perfectly-paced bluesy swinging solos.
Oddly for the leader, Rumsey’s bass is fairly low-key, an understated Paul Chambers. On some other Lighthouse records he disappears into the control room, leaving friend Red Mitchell and others to stand in on bass. Perhaps he sensed his strengths were as band leader, arranger, and salesman.
The real bonus is DuNann’s marvellous engineering, delivering a credible soundstage often missing on East Coast stereo editions of the same time. Too often early stereo offered up instruments crammed into unnatural positions, boxed into one or other speaker. Here we have deftly balanced instrument placing, wide tonal range, and a sense of excitement that had been missing from my previous UK mono Contemporary Vogue Decca pressing. The US Stereo Records lit up the Rumsey Lighthouse, and re-kindled my enthusiasm for the music. That’s what good hi-fi does, not really anything to do with being a “connoisseur of sound” or an equipment snob, as the word audiophile suggests. Musicophile would be a more satisfactory expression.
One of the paradox’s of the interaction between music and hi-fi, is that good audio presentation can make you want to listen to music you might otherwise dismiss. It demands you listen. The corollary is the awfulness of listening to great music recorded by someone who was present and opportunistically flicked a tape recorder on. A poor recording is a dis-service to the music, however historically important the performance..
Vinyl: Stereo Records S7008
Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars – Music For Lighthousekeeping, also released by Contemporary as C 3528 (mono) , S 7528 (stereo);
Goldmine mysteriously date the original Contemporary mono release C3528 as 1957, the “Stereo Records” edition as 1958, and finally the Contemporary stereo (same S7008 number not S 7528) as 1959. I don’t recall reading anything of the origins of the “stereo Records” label – “in association with Contemporary Records”. DuNann makes no reference to starting up his own label to promote stereo, perhaps he was entirely unaware of Koenig’s experimental Stereo Records label, firewalled from the Contemporary Records identity, in case it didn’t work out.
Below, the mono label:
Stereo Records label (black/gold text) matrix LKS (Lester Koenig Stereo) 16 D1
Contemporary Records official stereo releases label Contemporary S7500 series – released 1959 on black label, gold text (three Ebay examples below, black is actually quite difficult to photograph, the proverbial black cat in a coal cellar, camera-auto doesn’t perform well) , later in the ’60s on Green/ gold text seen below.
The Lighthouse Cover
The Album Cover Location: (excellent site that traces iconic album artwork to their original photo location today)
The Lighthouse, Point Vincente, no Polynesian bar in sight. But iconic, no?
In 1949, Rumsey ( a bass player and band leader) came across The Lighthouse, a Polynesian-styled bar on the Hermosa Beach Pier and convinced the owner to let him play there. By 1951, Rumsey formally organized the Lighthouse All-Stars, one of the best known of the so-called “West Coast” jazz bands of the era
(For the cover shoot) the lack of an actual lighthouse at The Lighthouse meant that Rumsey had to turn 10 miles down to the coast, to the southwestern-most point in L.A. There, at Point Vicente, is a modest but elegant lighthouse, originally opened in 1926. Rising 185 feet above sea level, the lighthouse sports a 5′ lens, originally crafted in Paris in 1886 and came to L.A. after decades of service in Alaska.
I never knew any of this before. Does it add to the music? No. Does it add to the enjoyment of the music, its historical context, and cultural reference points? Most definitely, yes.
Early Contemporary Records covers are famed for the sparing use of coloured red and green text. None in evidence here.
BIEM stamp? This record has travelled Yrup.
I chanced on this copy in a London store, intrigued by the oval “Stereo” overprint on the front cover. I already had a UK release on Contemporary Vogue, and wondered long and hard: did I need another copy, in stereo? I recalled being not over-impressed with the music (see comments above) and hadn’t much played it. Did I really need another copy?
In the spirit of adventure I took the risk, and it opened new doors, and I’m so glad I did. Confound your expectations: I keep saying, the only way to know anything is to try it, see what happens. The worst that can happen is disappointment. Surprising how often people make a priority of avoiding disappointment. Disappointment is a small price to pay in exchange for the possibility of opening new doors.
Let me conclude this somewhat long post with another track I couldn’t leave out, the Basie songbook “Topsy”, straight out of the Thirties, played with a modern twist, bottled musical happiness.
Selection 3: Topsy
This is great stuff. Dah dah da di doo doo didah…and in stereo.
Postscript (to an already lengthy post)
What’s the collective noun for Lighthouses?
Enterprising Howard seems to have issued singles on his namesake’s label “Lighthouse Records“, had an association with Contemporary Records with its own Lighthouse Series, whilst at the same time it appears he had been “seeing” Liberty. I guess that’s Hollywood life.
LJC, having listened to the rips above I must say that they do seem to sound slightly better than the CD. It has been said that Roy DuNann used to add some kind of reverb in the mastering or even in the cutting if I remember well, so this would account for the difference.
As far as the comment about Howard being a step below Paul chambers. He was the mgr. of the lighthouse and not much of a bass player! I know him and he’s still alive and up in his 90’s! The lighthouse is still going and has jazz on sat. and sun. Mike Harris
Interesting contribution. I am definitely not a fan of any of his groups. He creates enthusiasm and a good ambiance to enjoy a drink with friends. I wonder how Max Roach felt in this company. The flute/oboe album is boring. Later Lighthouse groups were recorded by U.S. Philips.
He was a competent professional.
i keep seeing these rumsey records and passing on them in favor of some other items that are on the want list. perhaps i should snag one. perhaps i will this weekend. two have been sitting at my favorite record store for fair prices. but which one to grab? after inspecting the personnel i fear it will be a coin flip.
Let the personnel listing be your guide. There was a floating roster of players in the All-Stars, and I count eight volumes in the Lighthouse series, of which I have just two, one chosen because Sonny Clark, the other Lee Morgan/Benny Golson . There is one I continue to pass on, featuring flute and oboe. Some lines I just don’t cross.
Lighthouses are completely undervalued, small change, but I should emphasise, seek out stereo over mono, which in my very limited experience don’t sparkle in quite the same way.
i rather enjoy instruments like oboe in my jazz. makes it sound like a wacky sax. which i enjoy. flute is another story. herbie mann has consistently surprised me, but other than that… eh. yuck.
In Roy DuNann’s own words, he joined Lester Koenig in 1956, assisting him in setting up his legendary makeshift (shipping room) studio. However, that “studio” must have existed as early as July, 1954, for it was then that one of the most beautiful West Coast albums (IMHO) was recorded there – not by DuNann but by John Palladino:
What attracted my attention to it decades ago was its extraordinary sound. But the real surprise came when I read the liner notes: The sessions were recorded “with a single AKG C-12 condenser microphone, the AKG’s first use on a jazz date”. A historic first – and still unbeaten in sonic terms.
I am sure that, among other things, it was the AKG microphones – and the comparatively straightforward way they were being used by Palladino and DuNann (cf. LJC quoting DuNann above) – that made the difference. I really love that sound.
Funny I have this record and used to live in South Bay (which Hermosa Beach is part of), but never really put much thought into the history surrounding me. I’ve seen the light house in Rancho Palos Verdes from the street, but never went any closer. Also I believe the building that used to be The Lighthouse Bar is still there, and if you stand in the parking lot behind the building you can still read the words “The Lighthouse” (although this could have been added more recently for Jazz tourists…is there such a thing?).Funny I have this record and used to live in South Bay (which Hermosa Beach is part of), but never really put much thought into the history surronding me.
Regarding the watershed between CR and Stereo records: I don’t think Lester intended a legal protection. CR and Stereo records were not incorporated, just like Blue Note for a long time, and unlike the shrewd Prestige Inc.
The stereo novelty in 1956 was at the origin of Stereo Records (in association with Contemporary Records) and at the same adress as CR. They issued a special catalogue for Stereo Records only. In later CR catalogues the Stereo Records catalogue numbers were mentioned under the corresponding 3500 series of CR. Later they were re-numbered in the7500 series.
The green Cecil Taylor labels are late sixties/early seventies. The original stereo version of 7562 (Cecil Taylor) was black with gold letters.
First pressing Stereo Records had gleaming (shiny) black labels with gold letters; second pressings were mate black and gold letters. E.g.: Rollins’ Way out West exists in these two versions and the sleeve is gakubuchi for first issue and non-gakubushi for the second issue.
You are quite correct, as usual, Rudolph, Contemporary Stereo black before green. Problem with ad-libbing, I forgot my own Contemporary Guide, where I wrote of the black label some years ago now.
There was also a green/gold text Stereo Records label too, sequence unknown to me. The pictures were all supplied by others as I never owned any of these labels myself, until now.
Text now corrected, search for the correct picture ensues. The “Lighthouse” series appears to have its own unique label with the lighthouse logo on it.
an other great contribution by LJC. Regarding the two- (or even three-tone in the case of Art Pepper) rears: they were only on early first pressings of the CR label, never on the Stereo label, not even the very first.
Thanks for the discussion on Contemporary’s mastering. They sound amazing. LJC I would love to read a review on Looking Ahead!
Cecil Taylor’s “Looking Ahead” was recorded by another very accomplished engineer: Tommy Nola, based on the East Coast. He also did some gorgeous recordings for the U.A. label.
top of the want list, that taylor album is.
The stereo, mono and UK mono pressings all sound outstanding. Really cool music, my favourite Taylor album